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Actress Jenny O'Hara: blunt offstage, gifted onstage

The versatile actress stars in Richard Greenberg's 'Our Mother's Brief Affair' at South Coast Repertory.

April 29, 2009|David Ng

The actress Jenny O'Hara may not be familiar to most readers, but anyone remotely connected to the Los Angeles theater world in the last 35 years will have crossed her path or seen her perform.

Her career longevity -- mostly on stage and television -- offers proof of a reputation built on talent, patience and years of unglamorous ensemble work.

In her latest performance as a Long Island matriarch in Richard Greenberg's "Our Mother's Brief Affair," she has found one of the best roles of her career, one that also fits perfectly with her unapologetically brusque demeanor. In person, O'Hara is blunt and profane, in a cheerful and naughty, rather than mean or vicious, way.

"I got this character. She's very direct and says things that will make people take notice. She doesn't tidy up after herself," said O'Hara in a recent interview at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, where the play runs through Sunday.

O'Hara plays Anna, a Jewish matron whose encroaching senility causes her to spill long-kept secrets to her two middle-aged children, Seth (Arye Gross) and Abby (Marin Hinkle).

One of the secrets involves an amorous liaison with a mysterious New York man (Matthew Arkin), while the others are more gradually revealed as Greenberg's play tunnels through layers of memories.

Reviews of the play have cited problems with the central plot twist, but critics agree on O'Hara's lead performance. Times theater critic Charles McNulty described the actress as "marvelous" and wrote that she plays Anna with "a delicious mix of diffidence and pride, dottiness and common-sense clarity."

On stage for the play's entire one-hour, 40-minute running time (with no intermission), O'Hara must, in the first 40 minutes, remain virtually stationary on a park bench as she incarnates her character's various stages of dementia.

"I have a trick that helps me get through it," O'Hara explained. "I allow everything that I think of to cross my face. The other night, I tried to figure out how many acoustical tiles were on the wall behind me. Anything in the world is OK because the character is in her own self-contained universe."

She added: "I have to say that the air in the theater is really dry. Halfway through the show I have a parched mouth, which is bad because I have to do a kissing scene."

The actress won the role partly because Greenberg had remembered seeing her in a performance of Athol Fugard's "Hello and Goodbye" at Yale Repertory in 1983 and recommended that the producers consider her for the part of Anna. (She still had to audition via DVD.)

O'Hara said she felt an immediate affinity with her character's personality. "The Irish and the Jews have a lot in common!" she said, erupting in laughter. "I'm a tad direct, just like Anna. There's such a relief in honesty, when people don't have to figure you out. If it's good or bad, just . . . say it. I can cope with it."

O'Hara was raised in a creative family in Upstate New York and Pennsylvania. Her mother, Edith, is a theater producer in her 90s and still runs the 13th Street Repertory Company in New York's Greenwich Village.

O'Hara was admitted to the Actors Studio after she stalked Lee Strasberg for weeks. "I would follow him down the street, crying," she says.

After graduating, she quickly landed a handful of supporting roles on Broadway before moving to L.A. in 1975, where she has lived ever since. (She resides in Laurel Canyon with her husband, British-born actor Nick Ullett, with whom she has two daughters.)

Throughout her stage career, O'Hara has been closely associated with the Ensemble Studio Theatre (in New York and L.A.), the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood and Theatre Tribe in North Hollywood.

Her bawdy sense of humor is one of her trademarks. She lets curse words fly and tells embarrassing stories from her many stage roles.

"Jenny has a really direct personal style, but there's no guile there, and so her directness doesn't seem self-serving," said Joseph Stern, the producer of the Matrix Theatre, where O'Hara is a company member.

When not onstage, O'Hara works in television. She starred in the CBS sitcom "My Sister Sam" in the '80s and has had numerous minor parts, including a recent recurring role on "Big Love." But for the most part, her most substantial work has been in the theater.

"She's never predictable, even if the roles are," said Lisa James, who has directed O'Hara in five plays.

O'Hara said the best piece of acting advice of her career came during the run of an all-female revival of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" that played at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1985 before transferring to Broadway.

Just before opening night, director Gene Saks told the cast: "Don't whore. Go out there and play the play."

"I loved that!" O'Hara said. "It's the best advice you can give an actor when you're ramping up to opening night. You have to stay true to the play and not pander to the audience. And it's true about life, isn't it? It's about not selling out. Be true to yourself and the rest follows."

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